Rebecca Katz can’t remember a year when she didn’t mark the start of the Jewish High Holidays by taking part in Tashlich, a tradition in which Jews gather next to a river, lake or stream, toss bits of bread or pebbles into the water, and watch prayerfully as nature swallows or sweeps them away.
For centuries, the ritual has symbolized a casting-off of one’s sins of the past year, clearing the path for a fresh start as a new one gets underway.
But one muggy, overcast morning this week found Katz, 18, of Rockville, and a group of friends leaning over the sea walls of the Inner Harbor, trash grabbers in hand, fishing bottle caps, potato chip bags and plastic cups from the water.
With Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday that marks the Jewish New Year, set to begin Friday, they were taking part in a new twist on the old observance. Dubbed “Reverse Tashlich” by its creators, it calls for participants to pull “sins” out of the water, rather than throw them in.
Katz was one of a dozen young adults who gathered in downtown Baltimore to take part in the unorthodox rite, one that has mushroomed in popularity since its founders rolled it out in Florida seven years ago.
“This is my first time doing a Reverse Tashlich, but it’s such a clever and powerful idea,” Katz said as she dropped a bottle cap into a trash bag. “I’m passionate about preserving the environment, and this is such a wonderful way to welcome the new year — wiping away the old, making things clean and new.”
Rosh Hashana, which starts at sunset Friday, marks the onset of Jewish year 5784. It kicks off a 10-day period considered the holiest on the Jewish calendar.
Observant Jews use those High Holy Days to take a hard look at their actions and attitudes during the past year and seek forgiveness for transgressions. The goal is to emerge as individuals more deserving of God’s favor by the last, most important day of the period, Yom Kippur.
Scholars say Tashlich came into being sometime around the 13th century in Europe. Its themes can be seen in a passage from the Book of Micah still recited during the ritual: “He will again have compassion upon us. He will tread our iniquities under foot, and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
Jews worldwide have engaged in the custom for centuries, generally on the first day of Rosh Hashana, by gathering along a body of water and reciting atonement prayers while casting chosen objects in.
In recent years, though, one Jewish leader began thinking about bodies of water that are polluted and littered with trash. He wondered why members of his faith should focus on tossing materials in when such waters are already so full of the results of our own carelessness.
Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, a Hillel director in the Tampa, Florida, area in 2018, says it was a student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg who blurted out the idea of a reverse Tashlich, and it sounded so perfect that Rosenthal, a scuba diver and a lifelong lover of the ocean, got the first one going that fall. Five people filled six trash bags on a beach that day.
Rosenthal took the idea to the broader Jewish community in Tampa in 2019, and the new tradition has spread so fast that last year saw more than 3,000 people in 12 countries taking part.
Early returns suggest that more than 4,000 people in 22 countries pitched in Sunday, including those in nations as far afield as Bosnia, Canada, Uganda, Uruguay and South Africa.
“I think the reason is that people recognize, even on an unconscious level, that we need the water to survive,” said Rosenthal, now the founding director of Tikkun Ha Yam (Repair the Sea), an environmental nonprofit that focuses on the world’s waters. “And there’s something spiritual about it. Psalm 51 says, ‘the sea is his, for he made it.’ This isn’t just a waterfront cleanup, though those are great. It’s taking an everyday activity and raising it to the level of holiness.”
One former colleague of Rosenthal’s knows just what he means. Beth Vander Stoep, an environmental activist who focuses on food and energy production and who lives in Canton, met “Rabbi Ed” and learned of his brainchild when both worked for Hillel years ago.
It was in her capacity as a board member of B’nai Israel, the historic synagogue on Lloyd Street near the Inner Harbor, that Vander Stoep, 29, led the first Reverse Tashlich in Baltimore in 2020. She ran a second one the following year, and served as chief organizer Sunday, with help from Hillel at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the Jewish service group Repair the World.
Vander Stoep and her husband, Justin Regan, handed out trash grabbers, one-size-fits-most protective gloves and nuggets of hard-won wisdom (”Don’t pick up sharp objects,” “Look for pockets of trash in corners,” “Above all, don’t fall in!”) as they gathered their volunteers near the National Aquarium.
She inspired the troops by spelling out what she, too, views as the powerful link between time-honored Jewish values and their task.
Vander Stoep first spoke about the “trauma” the Inner Harbor has seen over the generations, including the fact that enslaved people were auctioned near where the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture now stands; about the historically strong Jewish presence in nearby neighborhoods, and about the role her synagogue, founded 150 years ago and one of the few still located downtown, has played in that history.
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Finally, she alluded to a Scriptural passage she said lies at the heart of a rapidly expanding environmental movement in Judaism around the world. Deuteronomy 20:19 directs Jewish warriors not to cut down trees when they lay siege to cities, for “from their fruits you might eat.” She called the passage the basis of Bal Tashchit, an ancient principle in Jewish law that sternly warns against needless waste.
“The Torah is talking about the ethics of war and not waging total war,” she told the attentive group. “In a contemporary context, it means that from a Jewish perspective, the Earth itself is on loan to us, and as we live here, we have an inherent moral responsibility to care for it, to serve as responsible stewards of what we’ve been given.”
Acknowledging that a mere 12 trash-pickers wouldn’t come close to solving the Inner Harbor’s pollution problems in two hours, Vander Stoep reminded the group that “hundreds and hundreds of Jews” were doing the same thing around the globe that same day, proving that the faith can be a force in healing what humanity has done to the earth.
At that point, they split up and headed in different directions. Heading east were Baltimore geographer Ben Greenberg; Hannah Zinker, a Repair the World fellow, and Joshua Zommick, a Baltimore engineer. They were pleasantly surprised to spot jellyfish along the sea walls as they pulled out confetti, cigarette butts and six-pack rings.
Meanwhile, it was Vander Stoep, Katz, and Katz’s friend and Goucher College roommate, Madison Spiers, 18, who traveled west. Their conversation turned to the plight of ducks in a plastic-filled harbor, the salinity of the water, and the care and feeding of hermit crabs, as they bent over the edge searching for pieces of negativity to remove for the holiday.
Minutes before noon, it was Katz whose final attempt landed the biggest haul of the day: a clear plastic sheet about the size of a shower curtain. No one could figure out what it was for, but a cheer went up as she pulled it onto a sidewalk, dripping, before stuffing it in a trash bag as a fisherman might fill his creel.
“You caught the whale!” Vander Stoep exclaimed with a laugh. “Look at us! This is glorious.”